Everything is temporary.
Through the layers of silk organza, she could feel the warmth of his hand on the small of her back. He was as handsome as she’d imagined, and his hands were even stronger and more capable. There was something golden about him under the skin.
Her wish had been a simple one and it had been fulfilled to the most intricate detail. A magnificent gown had manifested itself from her apron, perfectly tailored to each of her curves, in the remarkable shades of the three Araucana hens’ eggs that had been in her pocket. Oh, it was so lovely! The delicate blues and greens of spring, the colors of oceans she’d never seen, swirled about her as she danced. A trio of shimmering peacock feathers she’d discovered by the garden gate now quivered in her upswept curls.
Her shoes were foreign, yet the steps familiar. Her feet traced the same pattern with the prince as they had been accustomed with the broom. Day upon day of sweeping the cobblestone had taught her to dance. She was light on her feet. It was stealth she had perfected performing her chores with care not to wake her step-sisters. When her arm lifted to a graceful arch, it was the same movement as reaching to dust the highest of their bookshelves.
In stolen moments, she would read about fairies and selkies and djinns, of twelve princesses who danced their shoes to destruction each night, of countless magical resolutions for unfortunate girls. Tonight, as she was scrubbing the hearth, her own intercession finally appeared.
Her fairy godmother had transformed strewn lentils into a string of impeccable pearls. She had set the sand between the cobblestones afire and shaped the molten glass into slippers. With a wave of her wand, she created a four-in-hand from the garden: a gourd grew into a carriage, field mice became dove-grey steeds, and a dappled pony was at once a freckled ginger-haired driver.
It was not until the new horses had begun to trot away that her godmother issued her caveat. “You look lovely, dear,” she’d trilled. “Just remember, you only have until the stroke of twelve. Everything is temporary.”
“Quite. I repossess it all at midnight.” Her godmother may or may not have said something else after that. The carriage was already down the lane.
Now here she was. Her hand was in the prince’s, her footsteps in time with his. She had no awareness of any other guest, no conception of time, no desire but for more of his company.
“You must tell me your name.” His breath warm on her ear as he whispered. The intimacy made her blush. He was utterly charming. She felt hot and flustered all over. The pearl necklace was a small cool relief.
She did not answer him, only pressed her hands more firmly on his shoulder and guiding hand. The music slowed and so did their steps. Against all propriety, she laid her tired head against his chest. She had, after all, been cleaning all day. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His medals were cool against her rosy cheek. Surprisingly, he smelled of fresh-cut hay.
“Do you think the others will be terribly disappointed if I dance with you all night?”
“No,” she lied.
It was quiet for a moment. The musicians had broken for their promised champagne. The prince continued to waltz with her to an unheard cadence they both just seemed to understand. The glass slippers clicked like clock hands against the great palace floor.
“What do you love?” he whispered.
“Even after all the stories I’ve read, your majesty, I’m not certain of love at first sight.”
"No, no… you misunderstand,” he smiled. “I want to know what makes you happy. What do you love in this world?”
She looked around the ornate ballroom. Her eye captured a kaleidoscope of wonders: delicacies, textiles, jewels, and rare comforts.
“I love the smell of fresh hay,” she confided. “The feel of my toes in wet soil after a storm… I love the taste of honey stolen from a hive, the silver song of a lark. I love the symmetry of flowers. I love a story that ends with a surprise.”
“What do you love?” she asked.
There was quiet again. To the others at the ball, it was the awkward quietness of watching the couple waltz to no music. To many, the it was the envy and dismay of having no princes of their own. For the prince and his dancing partner, it was the comfortable silence of a couple who need not speak much aloud in order to convey everything they wanted to say.
The tower bells began to peal.
“And do you love the music which rings out each day?”
“I cannot, your majesty.” The urgency of the hour assaulted her all at once. She released herself from his embrace.
The bells rang incessant and ugly. She ran from the palace as quick as her slippers would carry her. Feathers flew from her hair. A flurry of cinders glowed in the night. The prince stood in the middle of the dance floor, confounded and alone.
True to the repossessor’s word, her charms reverted. She had only started down the palace stairs when her shoes devolved into grains of sand. Her necklace flew apart, scattering lentils. By the time she reached the carriage, she was once again in her frayed cotton frock. The four-in-hand rolled out of her reach. Down the hill the carriage went, rolling and shrinking to a gourd. The four mice hopped from its path, and the footman returned to his animal state. Barefoot, she mounted the pony. She nestled her face in his tangled mane for one good cry before riding home.
The prince followed the sand-trail on the stairs. There was no memento save the feathers from her hair, neither a name nor single shoe, to guide him to what he now wished for most of all.
He did not return to the ball. Instead, he made his way on foot to the outskirts of the kingdom. In the moonlight, he found his way to the stables of a very familiar and modest farm. He thrust his hands deep in the hay and pulled out a brass lamp. He passed his fingers over the exotic etchings upon its gleaming surface.
“You’ve granted my first wish,” he conceded. “I now know how great your magic is, that you could turn a simple stable hand like me into a prince.”
He held the lamp handle tightly in one hand and cupped a peacock feather with another.
“Oh, great djinn,” he beckoned. “Come out, come out!” He held the spout of the lamp close and whispered. “O djinn, it is your grateful master. And I’m ready to make my second wish.”
Listen to Temporary Charms on The Story Coterie podcast.